‘Matilda the Musical’ has the same joys as reading an unforgettable book

'Matilda the Musical' is currently playing at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway — Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus
‘Matilda the Musical’ is currently playing at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway — Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

NEW YORK — Roald Dahl is one of the most important children’s authors of all time. His cleverly devilish books present hopeless children battling against malignant adult forces. Many of his characters are yearning for parental guidance, but instead they are met with cunning evil and hurtful insults. Despite all the doom and gloom, Dahl’s books, including Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, are wonderfully liberating and massively enjoyable. Within the dystopia there are glimmers of humor and survival.

Matilda, perhaps Dahl’s most famous book, has recently been adapted into a big glitzy musical. After finding success in London, the import has arrived on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre. Although far from perfect, the theatrical display is a winning combination of verve, oddity and bookwormish delight.

Several young actresses play the title role on a rotating basis. The night I attended featured the excellent Sophia Gennusa. Her character is a little girl with a propensity for books. She enjoys reading anything the local library has to offer, even though her parents, Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert) and Mrs. Wormwood (Lesli Margherita), have no use for the written word.

Matilda’s house is filled with verbal abuse. Besides not being fans of her reading habit, the Wormwoods denigrate the poor child almost to the point of tears. Her father doesn’t even call her a girl. Instead, he shouts “boy” to get her attention. J.K. Rowling probably took a page from Dahl’s book when she created the Dursleys.

Things at school are not much better for Matilda. Although she loves the company and instruction of Miss Honey (Lauren Ward), the young girl often falls under the shadow of Miss Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel), the meanest principal one could imagine. This mountainous woman inflicts pain on her student body, often calling them out for doing nothing at all. The worst offenders are sent to the Chokey, a dark closet filled with nails and broken pieces of glass.

The Wonderful World of Disney this is not.

The lesson to be learned (and Matilda’s goal for the two-hour-40-minute show) is to escape the darkness and grasp the light (Miss Honey and the local librarian are the only soothing presences in her life).

The cast is uniformly campy and hilarious. Ebert, a Tony winner for this role, plays his role with big gestures and over-the-top accentuation of every word. He’s a used car salesman who can’t stop the “selling” act when he’s home. Margherita is fun as his wife; she’s constantly dressed up, hoping to utilize her new dancing skills.

Ward is nice as Miss Honey, although the role falls into the background because of all the fun the evil adults are having. Carvel is brilliantly maniacal as Miss Trunchbull. His voice and elongated shoulders make for a menacing villain, one that will surely scare the children in the audience. Gennusa, much like other young performers on Broadway, is fittingly able to hold a gargantuan musical on her shoulders.

The problem with the show is that it doesn’t seem to lend itself to the musical realm. The songs by Tim Minchin are too simple and not catchy enough. There are few huge numbers where the children can let out their aggression and pent-up rage. “Revolting Children” and “When I Grow Up” can’t  build enough energy to send the audience soaring. And without triumphant songs, the children feel lost in this hopeless world.

Peter Darling’s choreography is clever, utilizing much of the enormous stage at the Shubert. Director Matthew Warchus never takes too many risks, and that seems to work out just fine. Although the scenic design and costumes by Rob Howell are vibrant and puzzle-like (the alphabet proscenium holds many hidden treasures), much of the action is centered around the middle of the stage with a few set pieces.

Matilda the Musical is certainly not as memorable as the book, but as a big-stage adaptation, it retains much of the wonder that Dahl infused in his story. This isn’t a Disney musical. It’s dark, dreary and yet still a lot of fun. Hoping for these school children to make it out of their predicaments can be quite exhilarating.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Matilda the Musical

  • Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin

  • Book by Dennis Kelly

  • Directed by Matthew Warchus

  • Choreography by Peter Darling

  • Starring Lesli Margherita, Gabriel Ebert, Sophia Gennusa, Lauren Ward and Bertie Carvel

  • Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

  • Currently playing the Shubert Theatre at 225 W. 44th St. in New York City. Click here for more information.

  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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